So how real are any of the proposed cuts, anyway?
Brad Plumer, now at Ezra Klein’s souped-up and even more must-read than before blog, had an excellent piece yesterday about whether a Congress can force a future Congress to stick to budget cuts or deficit targets. His answer, which I think is exactly right, is that well-designed procedures such as PAYGO rules to enforce widely agreed-upon targets can in fact work pretty well. He makes the excellent point that most of what Republicans are pushing right now wouldn’t fall under those categories. Indeed, that’s the real problem with the GOP debt limit blackmail strategy: even if they win now, the less there’s a consensus on what they win, the less the chance that the cuts will wind up being implemented.
I’d add a couple of things. One is that Plumer is mostly talking about discretionary spending. For programs which receive yearly funding in appropriations bills, Congress must act every year – and whatever the budget rules might be, strong Congressional preferences can relatively easily overcome any procedural safeguards. So what’s supposed to be cut this year could be very real, but once we get to the future, it’s a lot harder to know.
However, when it comes to entitlements, the logic works the other way around. Entitlements (sometimes called “mandatory” spending) simply are programs in which anyone who meets certain conditions is entitled to payment. If Congress never acts, they stay in place forever (the tax code works the same way; Congress doesn’t have to act to put next year’s income taxes into effect). So any entitlement changes enacted into law has a very good chance to stay in place for a very long time.
That’s really why those opposed to spending cuts are correct, I think, to focus mainly on entitlements. Not because discretionary spending isn’t important; indeed, one could make a strong argument that liberals should care more about the programs funded by yearly appropriations. But because once entitlement cuts are made, they’re really made. No matter what happens with discretionary spending now, the real decisions won’t be made until the actual fiscal year. And there will be many elections between now and then.